BOULDER, Colo. – The USA Rugby Barnburner for this week is a pivotal match between two teams that are neck-and-neck in the Western Conference. The United States Air Force Academy Zoomies will be traveling to Tempe, Arizona to take on the Arizona State University Sun Devils in a game that could determine which team in the Western Conference will have a playoff berth.
Arizona State has earned 20 points throughout their matches and now find themselves tied with Utah for second place in the Western Division standings. A win on Saturday would give them critical points towards earning a playoff spot, which would be quite a feat considering that last year ASU competed in Division II just last year.
“I am very proud of the team for working hard and willingly committing to compete at the top level. Our guys have stepped up to the competition and have set the tone for the program’s future,” said ASU head coach, Gary Lane.
Air Force, who has a long-standing rugby tradition, currently sits in third place in the Western Division with 17 points and has been steadily climbing up the unofficial CPD Rankings the past few weeks. AFA is now ranked #12 according to RUGBYMag.com, while ASU is ranked #10 according to the same rankings. ASU is ranked #9 onWeAreRugby.com and AFA is ranked #16.
“They have been improving all season and our guys are not taking them lightly,” said Lane.
At the beginning of the season not many would have expected these two teams to be the contenders they are today, but their paths to success have been more similar than not.
Arizona State began their season with a convincing 48-19 win over Colorado followed by a narrow 20-29 loss to Utah that remains their only defeat. In order to keep Utah as their only loss they will need big play from the whole team. Luckily, the Sun Devils have a plethora of weapons that include current Junior All-Americans (USA U20s), Adam Sandstrom and Eric Rygiel.
Air Force has fared similarly against the same opponents; they beat Colorado 36-15 and this past week they just lost to Utah 27-34. Their second loss came at the hands of BYU, whom ASU has yet to play this season.
The Zoomies have seen different players step into leading roles throughout the weeks. Carson Cleveland and Brendan Gallagher have both been recognized as Western Division Players of the Week and could easily be joined as winners by a handful of their teammates on any given week.
On the other hand, the Sun Devils have been led all season long by Travis Hughes. He is the only player twice named as Conference Player of the Week and has six tries this season.
“Travis has been our emotional leader, but the team has really developed good chemistry over the season,” said Lane, “We must play our game to win.”
Lane feels both teams are evenly matched, but the back lines will largely determine the match outcome.
“Air Force plays very well as a team. It will be interesting to see how the back lines match up against each other. They like to get it out wide, so our center, Zach Utley, will be key in leading the defense against the strong Air Force attack.”
Assuming both teams play “their game” Saturday night’s match is shaping up to be a thriller.
“There really aren’t many weaknesses with either team at this point; both have improved greatly throughout the season and we expect a physical, fast, and hard match of rugby,” said Lane.
The match is scheduled for a 7:00 p.m. kick-off at the ASU Soccer Stadium on Saturday, April 23.